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Apologetics – Lesson 8: Why are there so many versions (Part 2)

June 17, 2012

Continuing from the last lesson we now understand why there are so many versions of the Bible and that the multiple versions does not equal multiple Bibles. We still have the same message presented in the KJV that is in the NIV or others. The next rung on our ladder it strictly for those of us in the English-speaking world; how we got the Bible in our language. We are blessed with an abundance of English Bible versions today and some would even argue that we have too many. How did this come to be? Is there one English Bible that towers over the others? To address this question we need to take a walk through history…

The Old English Era (400-1100 A.D.)

Christianity was introduced into Britain shortly after it was conquered by the Romans in 43 A.D. In 405 A.D. the Bible was translated into Latin. A few copies of this Latin Vulgate Bible were available to the people of Britain. Beyond that, this era saw a few translations of the Bible into Old English. This form of English is very different from what we see today. It is doubtful that the average English-speaking person could even understand it. It is basically a different language than what we have now. Nevertheless, this is the root of the language that we speak today. The Bible translations into this form of English were few and fragmentary but they are significant.

Caedmon: Caedmon was a member of the choir and a poet. In his day, the official language of England was Latin and all church services were conducted exclusively in Latin. Caedmon wanted to sing Bible stories in “English” (Anglo-Saxon). He began by singing Genesis 1 and later sang many other parts of the Bible as well. Caedmon died in 680 A.D.

Aldhelm: Aldhelm was the bishop of Sherbourne who lived from 640-709 A.D. He was influenced by Caedmon’s work and translated the Psalms into Old English.

Egbert: Egbert of Northumbria translated the first three Gospels into English in about 705 A.D.

Bede: Bede was the most learned and the most famous writer of this time. He lived from 674-735 A.D. He wrote a number of commentaries on the Bible in Latin as well as the “Ecclesiastical History of the English People.” Bede was well aware of both Caedmon’s and Aldhelm work. He translated the gospel of John into “English”. According to tradition, he lay dying as he completed his work.

Alfred the Great: Alfred the Great was the king of England and lived from 871-901 A.D. King Alfred had much of the Bible translated into Old English and called upon his people to learn to read, using the Bible as a primer. He had translated much of Exodus and Acts.

In all the translations of this era were inferior when compared to our standards today. They were fragmentary and normally translated from the Latin Vulgate making them secondary translations. Regardless, the significance is in the fact that they exist and form the origin of the English Bible we have today.

The Middle English Era (1100-1520 A.D.)

Middle English is much closer to what we know as English today with some significant differences. It is during this era that we see the true beginning of the Bible as we see it now. This era can truly be called the birth of the English Bible. In 1066 the Normans invaded England. Overtime the Anglo-Saxon language and Norman language blended into one totally different English very similar to what we have today. It is during this time that we see many Bible translations, in what will be called Middle English. We will also see many rising stars in the development of English Bible.

John Wycliffe: 

John was a philosopher and a theologian. In 1378 Wycliffe wrote a book called “The Truth of Holy Scripture.”  In this book he taught that the Bible alone is the ultimate authority for the Christian and should be the source of faith and practice. John also taught that all traditions of the church and all church authorities including the Pope should be tested by the Scriptures. Because of his strong conviction that all men should have access to the Scriptures, not just the clergy, John translated the Latin Vulgate into English with the NT being completed in 1380 and the OT in 1384. Wycliffe’s followers went from village to village preaching and teaching from his English Bible. However the Roman Catholic authorities bitterly opposed him. They believed that Latin was the secret language and that the common people we’re not worthy of reading the Scriptures for themselves.

Wycliffe died of a stroke in December of 1384. In 1412 Archbishop Arundel, in a letter to the Pope referred to Wycliffe  as “that wretched and persistent fellow of damnable memory… The very herald and child of antichrist who crowned wickedness by translating the Scriptures into the mother tongue. In 1428, John Wycliffe’s bones were dug up and burned by the Roman Catholic Church (imagine the hatred required to do this.) In many ways John Wycliffe was the first reformer long before Martin Luther wrote his 95 Thesis. In fact, it was the writings of Wycliffe that strongly influenced Luther in his early days.. For this reason, Wycliffe is often referred to as the “Morning Star. Of the Reformation.”

Wycliffe’s Bible was by many of our standards today and inferior translation since it was not translated from the original languages  it is still a significant step on the road to getting English Bible. Even though Wycliffe’s version was copied only by hand, enough copies were made to survive the attempts to have them burned. 170 copies still exist and printed editions of Wycliffe’s Bible can still be purchased today.

After Wycliffe there were several important events that shaped to development of the English Bible. First, in 1454 the printing press was invented by Guttenberg. The first book to be printed on it was the Latin Vulgate, otherwise known as the Guttenberg Bible. The next significant event happened in 1517 when Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the door of the church in Wittenberg thus igniting the Protestant Reformation. One of the most important ideas to come out of the Reformation was that of Sola Scriptura which means the Bible alone should be the sole infallible rule of faith and practice. Because of this the desire to have the Bible translated into the common language of the people became reinforced. If the Bible, not the Pope, is to be our rule for faith then we should know and understand what it says. In 1522 Luther translated the Bible into German for the common man to read. This helped create momentum for the Bible be translated to other common languages.

The Modern English Era (1520 – 1611 AD)

Tyndale Bible (1525)

William Tyndale (1494-1539) is called the father of English Bible. He was the first to make an English translation directly from the Greek. He had a burning desire to get the Bible into the hands of the common person. Notice his words, written to a visiting member of the clergy: “If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”

However, Tyndale’s belief would meet with much opposition. It was because of opposition that Tyndale fled to Germany and in 1525 is English New Testament was printed in Worms. Some 6000 copies were made and many were smuggled into England. Then, in 1535, as he was working on his Old Testament translation, he was arrested in Antwerp and burned at the stake in Brussels in 1536. His prayer as they led him to his death was, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” This prayer was soon answered. King Henry VIII of England was persuaded by 1539 to declare that every church in England was to make a copy of the Bible in English available for its parishioners. Fortunately, Tyndale’s legacy did not stop there.

Coverdale Bible (1535)

Miles Coverdale picked up where Tyndale left off and completed the translation of the OT. He dedicated his Bible to the king. This was the first Bible to print chapter summaries at the beginning of each chapter to aid the reader. This was the first complete Bible in English to be translated directly from the original languages.

Matthew’s Bible (1537)

The Matthew’s Bible was compiled and edited by John Rodgers (an associate of Tyndale) using the pseudonym Thomas Matthew. He wrote in secret out of fear of the persecution that Tyndale suffered.

The Great Bible (1539)

This was a revision of the Matthew’s Bible which was authorized by King Henry VII to be read in churches. It was called “Great” simply because of its great size. It was printed in a large page format and functioned as a lectern Bible. It was also called the “Chained” Bible because it was often chained to the lectern.

The Geneva Bible (1560)

This version was done by the Reformers in Geneva, Switzerland. It was the first translation to be translated by a committee instead of an individual, it was the first to print each verse as a paragraph, and the first to use italics to indicate words that were added by the translators that were not in the Greek and Hebrew texts. This Bible also contained pictures and maps. In the margin of this Bible were study notes. This was also the first Bible taken to America. For many years this was the preferred version even after the King James Version was published.

The Bishop’s Bible (1568)

The Bishops Bible was made by a committee of Anglican Bishops to counter the “study notes” found in the Geneva Bible that promoted Calvinistic teachings. This Bible’s margins were filled with study notes promoting Anglican Church theology. While the Bishop’s Bible was in every church, the Geneva Bible still reigned in people’s homes.

The Reims-Douai Bible (1582)

Gregory Martin and other Catholic scholars made the Reims-Douai version in Rheims and Douai, France. It was translated from the Latin Vulgate and was designed to counter the Protestant English translations. (Revised in 1750, this version is still in use today).

The Era of Elegance (1611 – 19th Century)

All of these Bibles paved the way for the next era in the history of the English Bible, which saw a translation come about which would dominate the English Bibles and become “the” Bible to generations of English-speaking people.

The King James Bible (1611) – KJV

King James I of England met with the religious leaders of England in 1604, to hear their rival views at the Hampton Court Conference. After several meetings, it was decreed by the king that a new translation of the Bible was to be made, as accurate to the original languages as possible, which would not include any marginal “study notes”, and that would be used by all the churches of England. Fifty-four of the best scholars of the day were chosen to make this new translation. They were divided into six teams. Two teams worked at Oxford, two teams at Cambridge and two at Westminster. They worked from 1604-1611. What was produced is perhaps one of the most beautiful English translations of the Scriptures. Over time, it became the standard Bible for the English-speaking world for well over 300 years and, as of 2011, the King James Version (KJV) celebrates its 400th anniversary.

So why, you may ask, was there a need for another translation if the KJV was so good? Like all man-made translations the KJV, while a very good translation, is not perfect and through the course of time things change. There are several problems with the KJV, which spawned the need for new translations. First, there are textual concerns. The KJV Greek text comes from the Textus Receptus 3rd edition by Erasmus of 1522 which was made from his Greek text with relatively few manuscripts. 19th and 20th Century discoveries have yielded resources of Biblical MSS that Erasmus could only dream of. No cardinal doctrine is impacted by the differences between the Greek text editions; only a desire to obtain the most accurate text to the original. Next, there are translation concerns. Like many translations the KJV is good but not perfect (no translation is perfect.) Here is an example where the translation could have been better:

  • Acts 5:30
    • (KJV) – “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.”
    • (ESV) – “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.”

The KJV treats these as separate statements whereas they are linked. Jesus was killed by hanging on a tree (the cross.) This may seem like a small issue, and it is, but it shows how there is always room for improvements in every translation. Finally, there are language concerns. Languages change over time and English is no exception. In the 400 years since the KJV was first published the English language and usage have changed. Note a couple examples:

  • Song of Solomon 2:12
    • (KJV) – “The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;”
    • (ESV) – “The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.”

Turtles are not known for their singing voices. While this may be understandable to the 17th century reader, most 21st century readers would not necessarily get the reference. Here is another example:

  • 1 Kings 11:1a
    • (KJV) – “But king Solomon loved many strange women,”
    • (ESV) – “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women”

While I do not doubt that the women may well have been “strange” this is not the idea the author was trying to convey. Again, what is understandable to the 17th century reader is confusing to the 21st century reader. Why? Languages change over time.

The King James Only Movement

I honestly do not want to address the issue which has cropped up in the last 15-20 years but unfortunately, when dealing with the subject of Bible translations, I cannot avoid it. There are those who would claim that the KJV is the only Bible any Christian should be using. This is not a problem with the KJV but we do need to be aware of and address the fact that there are some within the church who regard the KJV as the only viable translation. This has been the result of much controversy in recent years. I will present these views only for information. For anyone who wants a more in-depth analysis of this issue I highly recommend James White’s book, The King James only Controversy. This book is a standard for dealing with this issue. Those who represent this viewpoint typically fall within one of three groups:

  1. Group #1 – Like the KJV best: This group represents those who simply prefer the KJV to other translations. There is no problem with this whatsoever. Many Christians simply prefer the KJV for their own reasons. This group is more KJV-preferred than KJV-only and should not be considered a part of the KJV-only movement. We only mention them here to exclude them from the others.
  2. Group #2 – The textual argument: This group either prefers the Textus Receptus (TR) or would argue for the TR-only. They would view the KJV as the best translation we have though not necessarily the only possible translation. They may also accept the NKJV.
  3. Group #3 – KJV-Only/New revelation: This group ranges in radicalism from promoting the KJV as the only viable translation to declaring heresy on anyone who would use another version. This is the most radical and visceral arm of the movement. They follow a simple formula: KJV alone = Word of God alone. Some of the most mean-spirited and frustrating dialogues have occurred with those in this camp. Thankfully, this group is relatively small.

The Twentieth Century and Beyond

Since the KJV and the many textual discoveries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there has been an explosion of English Bible translations. We will review each with a small amount of commentary:

English Revised Version (1881) – RV

A group of 65 English scholars asked 34 American scholars to join them in making a new English translation of the Bible. It was finished in 1881. This translation made use of the new information about ancient languages and the MSS discoveries of the 19th Century. It was fundamentally a revision of the KJV and was relatively well received in European circles.  The American scholars had many preferences that were not accepted by the English, so they published their own edition a few years later.

American Standard Version (1901) – ASV

By agreement with the English scholars from the RV, the American scholars waited a number of years before publishing their version. It was heralded as the most literally accurate Bible in the English language but was critiqued for its lack of English style and readability. Copies od the ASV can still be found today.

Revised Standard Version (1946) – RSV

This was an update and revision of the American Standard performed by the United Council of Churches (UCC.) However, it was not well received in conservative circles due to some translation decisions. A key example of this is the translation of Isaiah 7:14 which reads, “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son,” Contrast this with the KJV which reads,  “Behold, a virgin shall conceive,” This corresponds to Matthew’s interpretation in Matthew 1:23 which uses the word “virgin.” Thus the controversy, which claimed that the RSV was challenging the virgin birth of Christ. However, when you consider that the underlying Hebrew word used in Isaiah can be translated “young woman” or “virgin” depending on the context and the fact that the RSV does use the word “virgin” in Matthew, I think that the controversy over this translation decision was a little over-emphasized. While opinions continue to vary many people, after analyzing the Isaiah passage and providing interpretation in context argue that this does not threaten the virgin birth of Christ. However, the UCC is not known to be an overly conservative body and other translation issues do exist in the RSV that collectively made it not the choice for the conservative Christian in the day. Regardless of your position on this issue the RSV remains a viable, though liberal, translation of Scripture.

New American Standard Bible (1971) – NASB

The NASB is an update of the ASV completed as an evangelical response to the RSV. It seeks to preserve the accuracy to the original as much as English will allow. It has developed a reputation as having rather “wooden” English. Since it was updated in 1995 to improve readability that charge is not as relevant as it used to be. Still, the NASB is not one you normally see churches using for worship services. This is unfortunate in my opinion as the NASB is widely regarded as the most literally accurate translation in English.

The Living Bible (1971) – LB

The Living Bible started life as a paraphrase of the ASV completed by Kenneth Taylor for his family devotions. Some of these, called Living Letters, were published and people requested more until Taylor finally published a full paraphrase of the Bible. This is not a translation in the strictest sense but can be good for devotional reading. Like all paraphrases, it is subject to its author’s interpretation.

New International Version (1978) – NIV

The NIV was intended to be a balance between formal and dynamic translation. However, it tends to be more on the dynamic side. It received a strong positive reaction from the evangelical community and popularity of the translation has grown by leaps and bounds for over three decades and it remains the translation of choice for many Christians. It was also the first translation to surpass the KJV in sales per year and has recently been revised in 2011.

New King James Version (1982) – NKJV

The NKJV is a 20th century revision of the KJV still utilizing the Textus Receptus as the basis for the New Testament as in the KJV. However, it also includes extensive footnotes to supply the reader with information when the TR differs from the other major Greek texts. Thus it can be a very useful tool for study and is a good formal translation for those familiar with the KJV.

New Living Translation (1996) – NLT

The NLT is a new translation from the original languages using Ken Taylor’s Living Bible as a basis for the English. This results in a very dynamic translation that is easy to read but, like all dynamic translations, is rather interpretative. It is a good translation for devotional and casual reading but its usefulness as an in-depth study source is debatable in my opinion. It was most recently revised in 2007.

English Standard Version (2001) – ESV

The ESV is a revision to the RSV conducted by conservative scholars who felt that the RSV was a good translation in terms of English style and flow but needed improvement. This translation attempts to strike a balance between formal accuracy and good English and has been very well received in conservative Christian circles. This is the translation I go to most often. It was most recently revised in 2011.

Holman Christian Standard Bible (2007) – HCSB

A conservative response to the TNIV, the HCSB seeks to strike a balance between formal and dynamic translations. The HCSB is more formal than the NASB and less dynamic than the NIV. Despite it’s rather politically motivated origins, it is a good translation and a good substitute for those seeking something different than the NIV.

Other Translations

There are many more English translations that we could cover but that would take quite a bit more time that you have to read and I have to write. The following is a brief list of a couple other notable translations that may be of interest:

  • New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): An update to the RSV produced by the United Council of Churches.
  • Amplified Bible (AMP): More of a study tool than a translation, the Amplified provides the reader with many alternative translation options within the passages.
  • New English Translation (NET): Probably the best of the “other” translations. The NET is freely available to all via the internet (note the double meaning of the NET-Bible) and includes all the translator’s notes (over 60,000) giving the reader access to the background of each translational and textual issue within the pages of Scripture. The translation itself is a dynamic translation with a very serious focus on accuracy to the original. I highly recommend this to those who are interested in the background of any translation or textual efforts.


Well, there it is, the trek from the Hebrew and Greek to the English Bible we can buy in just about any store. We have access to the Bible that men like William Tyndale could only dream of. Yet we see so many Christians who profess to love Christ but spend almost no time in His Word. The story of the English Bible should be a conviction to all of us. So many Godly men gave their lives so we could buy a copy of the Bible from our local Wal-Mart. How could we not read it?

God bless

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Miserman permalink
    May 16, 2013 5:01 pm

    I discovered your blog this afternoon and am enjoying perusing your writing.

    As for the question of English versions, I find myself desiring that one translation would again rise above others and provide a stable, fixed point through a single text across various lines. The mainline and liberal churches have attempted this through the NRSV, which is heralded as an “ecumenical” translation. While there is value in various translations, there reaches a point where the value of diversity becomes a source of confusion and a watering down of textual authority. Too many cooks in the kitchen and all that …

    • Knight permalink*
      May 16, 2013 6:52 pm

      Thanks for your attention. I am hoping to get back into posting soon.

      As for the translations I agree with you that it would be nice if one would rise above the rest. However, I seriously doubt that will be the case. Plus there are good points to having more than one as translation is not an exact science.

      I generally recommend that people find at least one formal and one dynamic translation they are comfortable with and use them for reading and study.

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